Drain cleaners Roto-Rooter are facing some legal trouble in Massachusetts. Middleboro native Kristian Pedersen, and ex-employee, is calling them out on some less than legal practices that put consumers at risk. We got to talk to him about legal action and why you should opt for mom-and-pop contractors over the corporate giants.
Pedersen began working for Roto-Rooter back in 2006, an honest guy just trying to make a living. But before starting, he was aware of the company’s questionable reputation. “Roto-Rooter plumbers have been called ‘30 day plumbers’ or ‘paper plumbers’ over the years by people in the trade due to a lack of technical training among employees,” he says.
However, Pedersen had earned his plumbing license and was up on state plumbing codes from previous work in the industry. After being laid off, he started at Roto-Rooter. “They required me to purchase my own truck and tools. I provided the gas, insurance, all that,” he told us via email. Basically everything plumbers need to, well, plumb. He was supposed to be making over $100,000 a year via commission.
In Massachusetts and many other states, a plumbing license is required to even touch the pipes of a house (the one exception being an apprentice training under the direct, on-site supervision of a licensed plumber). Inexperienced hands can make a mess out of the water and natural gas systems, creating a risk to public health and safety. Here’s where the story gets good: Roto-Rooter was sending apprentices and unlicensed plumbers out alone to do work that requires a license. These guys only should have been doing drain cleaning, which doesn’t require state licensing.
Why send someone who could royally fuck up a house’s plumbing? Roto-Rooter works on a system of commission. Experienced, licensed plumbers like Pedersen get a bigger cut out of the fee for a job. The people without a license get paid a smaller share, but the company gets to charge the same. They can get away with this because they bill themselves as a “drain cleaning company,” and work in the shadows of state regulations.
Managers would get bonuses if they could get all the jobs done for as little as possible. So, instead of sending Pedersen to the important stuff, he was stuck on free estimates and other jobs where he was earning peanuts. Instead of $100,000 a year, he was making less than minimum wage, while the branch managers were raking in bonuses. Pedersen was kept around because his license helped make the branch look legit: “The State Board,” according to Pedersen, “mandates one apprentice per journeyman, no more. When I left the company, the ratio was 2 to1.”
This problem in particular struck a nerve with Pedersen, who helped train new employees.
When Pedersen first brought up this issue, his boss said that Pedersen’s license meant: “shit to him.” Things only went downhill from there, and Pedersen was barely making money at his job. After about a year, he sat down with his boss again to discuss the issue. The next day, he was fired. Before long, he had to file for bankruptcy and lost his house to foreclosure.
In the meantime, he has taken legal action. Several ex-Roto-Rooter employees had filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for unpaid wages, and Pedersen signed on. He also hired an attorney in-state and filed complaints with the Superior court and the State Board of Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters.
This isn’t the first time Roto-Rooter has been in legal hot water. A few years ago, some of their employees in Connecticut were arrested for working without a license. Another lawsuit, this one related to sex bias, was filed in Ohio in March.
According to Pedersen, this is a prime example of why state regulations need to be enforced. “They’re set forth to protect the consumer, employee and employer,” he says. “This job involves protecting the Commonwealth’s potable water supply and natural gas systems. It shouldn’t be commission based.” As a national corporation, however, Roto-Rooter views itself as above the regulations set up by states.
His advice to consumers? Always ask to see a license, especially from large corporations. And make sure that the required permits are pulled. “There are still shops around that offer affordable services and a familiar face,” Pedersen advises. “Services rendered do mean something. You develop relationships with these businesses and they’ll do right by you.”